US & Canada

Obituary: Senator Robert Byrd

Sen Robert Byrd in a file photo from 2009
Image caption Senator Robert Byrd: A long-time fixture in US politics

Democratic Senator Robert C Byrd, who has died aged 92, was for many the embodiment of the ways and history of the US Senate.

His long career in politics began in 1952 when he was elected to the House of Representatives, but six years later he stood for a Senate seat to represent West Virginia - a position he occupied for the next 52 years.

Senator Byrd's oratorical skills and his ability to draw on his knowledge of the US Constitution, the Bible, ancient history and poetry enabled him to speak at length in Senate debates.

The Almanac of American Politics described him as coming closer than anyone to the kind of senator the founding fathers had in mind.

Mr Byrd was a fierce defender of the Constitution, often producing a battered copy from a pocket in his trademark three-piece suit.

He was for many years the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls a third of the federal budget.

He also put his grasp of the rules of the Senate to effective use.

"Bob is a living encyclopedia and legislative graveyards are filled with the bones of those who underestimated him," former House Speaker Jim Wright once said of him.

Outspoken opponent

Senator Byrd's personal political history also encapsulates the transformation in US life during the 20th Century.

He was briefly a member of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. His membership lasted only from the middle of 1942 to the beginning of 1943, he later suggested.

"It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation," he wrote in an autobiography.

But there were allegations that he retained an interest in the KKK for several years more.

One letter was cited from 1945 in which he wrote: "Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels."

After his election to the Senate, he took part in unsuccessful attempts to hold up the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But he subsequently apologised for his views, becoming a staunch defender of civil rights and arguing that intolerance had no place in the US.

He was also an outspoken and early opponent of the Iraq war.

The senator was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr in North Carolina in 1917. His mother died soon afterwards and her children were sent out to relatives, with the one-year-old being adopted by his uncle and aunt in West Virginia and renamed Robert Byrd.

He worked as a butcher and as a welder during World War II before entering politics, first as a state legislator before being elected to the US House of Representatives and then the US Senate in 1958.

Image caption Senator Byrd regarded voting against the Iraq war as one of his proudest moments

For his voters in West Virginia, he was not seen as a Washington insider but a senator who worked effectively to ensure funds came to their state to build roads, bridges and buildings.

To his critics, he was the King of Pork, serving up billions of federal dollars for wasteful projects they dubbed "Byrd droppings" in return for political support.

But Senator Byrd was unapologetic for his success in getting money for West Virginia.

"I came from lowly beginnings. The bottom rungs of my ladder were gone," Mr Byrd wrote in his autobiography.

"I had to have the help of the good Lord, and I've had to have the help of the people and the confidence of the people. And I've tried to repay them."

In November 2006, he was elected for an unprecedented ninth term to the Senate.

That same year saw the death of his wife of 68 years, Erma.

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